Sunburn: Your Skin Won’t Forget


It’s going to be a long hot summer. For many of us, the warm Aussie sun is a hallmark of the holiday season but, unless carefully managed, it will leave you with more than memories.

About 2000 Australians die from skin cancer each year and two out of every three will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime, including melanomas, basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas. Beyond the pain, suffering and grief, the financial cost is immense: each melanoma case costs an average $44,796, says a Cancer Institute NSW study into 150,000 skin cancer cases diagnosed in 2010. The lifetime costs were $536 million, it estimates.

Yet it’s not just the beach that catches people out, it is everyday weekend activities this time of year such as gardening, outside chores and time spent in the park.

Everyday activities are responsible for 50 per cent of sunburn on summer weekends, says Katie Clift of Cancer Council Queensland. That is higher than the rate of adults sunburnt at the beach, lake or pool (29 per cent), or playing sport (21 per cent).

“Whether accidental or intentional, exposure to UV radiation increases the risk of skin damage and cancer,” Clift says, noting that even 10 minutes in the sun unprotected can do damage.

The image of sun-bronzed Aussies has given way to a more healthy stereotype, perhaps because of greater awareness of the risks of cancer and, among the beauty conscious, the fact skin damage is not a good look.

“After decades of targeting Queenslanders with sun protection messaging, just 9 per cent of adults are actively trying to get a tan,” Clift says. “Yet 68 per cent of adults report having tanned skin, which shows that most UV damage is unintentional.”

Chris Baker, president of the Australasian College of Dermatologists, says your skin won’t forget the sun damage it sustains.

“The skin ‘remembers’ past sun exposure,” Baker says. “Being outdoors unprotected, all the sunburns and tans add up over a lifetime and increases the risk of skin cancer. A tan is a sign of skin damage, even if you don’t burn.”

In an effort to remind us of the risks, stakeholders are trying new things. Melanoma Patients Australia and advertising agency GPY & R created online persona @_melanoma that likes and comments on Instagram pictures of those spending time in the sun.

It is a deliberate attempt to reach 15 to 30-year-olds, for whom melanoma is the most lethal cancer. By early this month @_melanoma had messaged more than two million people. In a sign of success, the messages coincided with a 1000 per cent increase in visits to MPA’s skin check web page.

People must remember their skin cancer ABCDEs, Baker says. Look specifically for: Asymmetrical (marks that are not the same ­either side of a line drawn through it); Border (a mark with an irregular or uneven border); Colour (a mark with multiple colours, such as shades of brown, red, pink or black); Diameter (a mark that is more than 6mm in diameter); Evolving (a new or changing spot).

“If caught early, a melanoma can be removed before it spreads and has a five-year survival rate of 98 per cent,” Baker says.

“Spotting a potential skin cancer in the early stages is paramount. Getting to know your skin is key to being able to identify a change in an existing mole or blemish, or the development of a new one.”

While lifelong exposure increases the chance of cancer, in that younger age group especially people are too ignorant of the risks. What’s more, young people do not know how to protect ­themselves.

More than half of those aged 18 to 34 are not aware melanoma is the most common cancer in their age group. Four out of 10 have never been checked by a skin professional. And, astonishingly, 21 per cent feel repeated sunscreen use is detrimental to their health (it is not when used correctly), a Melanoma Institute Australia survey of 1348 adults found.

The institute encourages people to pay closer attention to themselves and those around them in its regular summer campaign, Watch Your Mate’s Back. The campaign is in partnership with Surf Life Saving Australia and supported by melanoma experts including John Thompson. He encourages people to be proactive.

“Checking your own skin is one of the most effective ways of ­detecting melanoma,” Thompson says. “Of course there are hard-to-see places on our own bodies. One-quarter of melanomas are detected by someone other than the person with the melanoma. That’s what makes Watch Your Mate’s Back an important summer awareness campaign.”

Up to 90 per cent of melanomas are triggered by UV radiation from the sun, and Australia has the highest incidence of melanoma in the world. Melanoma is the most dangerous skin cancer, Baker says, because it can spread rapidly to other parts of the body if not ­detected and treated early.

And it is not just fair-skinned people at risk. “There’s a common misconception that those with darker skin do not need to worry about UV protection; however, while they are less likely to suffer from sun damage, skin cancer can affect anyone,” Baker says.

“Lighter-skinned people who have multiple freckles and moles, as well as those with a family history of skin cancer, need to take the most care in avoiding exposure to UV and checking their skin.”

Clift has some tips not just for people in her home state of Queensland but the honorary Queenslanders who are visiting on holidays or enjoying a Sunshine State lifestyle elsewhere.

“Where possible, Queenslanders should avoid sun exposure, especially during periods of extreme heat at the peak of the day,” Clift says. “We recommend Queenslanders abide by all five sun-protective recommendations: slip on protective clothing; slop on minimum SPF30 broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen; slap on a broadbrimmed hat; seek shade; slide on wraparound sunnies when out and about.

“Sunscreen or a good hat alone isn’t enough; we need to make the effort to do all we can to protect ourselves in hot weather to reduce our skin cancer risk.”

Take the precautions, stay alert for danger signs and act when necessary. Only then will you be able to look back on your early summers with fond memories.

Article published in The Australian last December 11, 2015